This week, my family and I had the opportunity to celebrate the life of a truly great person, my mom. On March 22, 2011, after a short battle with depression, she chose to end her life at a very young age of 61. While thoughts and feelings continue to swarm in my mind, I’m truly convinced that one of the main reasons for this tragedy was her lack of preparedness for retirement. She had been a nurse her entire career, and as such she was truly depended upon and needed in many people’s lives. Upon retirement, the feeling of being needed diminished, and her mind spiralled downward from there.
Retirement is about much more than money. It’s also about finding a new path in life and a new identity as a retiree.
For most investors, retirement is their primary financial goal. As financial professionals, we help our clients chart a course to get them to retirement. We work together with our clients to answer financial questions like: When can I afford to retire? How much money will I need to live comfortably? Surveys show that many Americans are woefully unprepared for retirement and financial worries can make the retirement transition stressful.1 Fortunately, working with a professional can help ensure that you enter retirement with confidence in your financial future.
But having the means to retire after a lifetime of hard work and smart financial decisions is not all it takes to enjoy the next phase of your life. Many people overlook the fact that retirement is a major life transition that can come with significant mental and emotional ramifications. In this post, I discuss some of the critical non-financial issues that retirees must confront, and present some solutions suggested by psychologists who have studied the experiences of retirees.
Retirement can leave you feeling lost
There’s more to retirement than financial and logistical concerns. Many new retirees are unprepared for the psychological aspects of the transition. “People go into retirement essentially flying blind,” says Dr. Robert P. Delamontagne, author of The Retiring Mind® book series. In his research, Delamontagne found that people often aren’t mentally prepared for the retirement transition and don’t fully grasp what retirement will mean for their identity and place in the world.
Studies show that retirement can improve psychological wellbeing by removing the strain of a demanding career.2 However, the corresponding loss of work relationships, career identity, and daily purpose can cause retirees to feel adrift. Dr. Nancy K. Schlossberg, a former professor of counseling at the University of Maryland and author of Revitalizing Retirement: Reshaping Your Identity, Relationships, and Purpose, points out that a career “is such a part of your identity that people can feel very much at sea when they retire.”
This loss of a career-oriented identity is key, Schlossberg explains; “when you make a major change, your identity – who you are – is at stake.” Until retirees find a new identity in retirement and develop a new sense of purpose, they may struggle with feelings of loss and depression. Research supports this view; a meta-analysis of multiple studies found that retirees who closely identify with their role at work or had high-stress jobs are likely to find the transition to retirement hard.3
Delamontagne found that your personality type can have a lot to do with how difficult the transition will be. Those with relaxed dispositions can more easily roll with the punches and adapt to the changes retirement brings. On the other hand, energetic hard-chargers and people who have invested themselves in their careers often face more trouble making the transition into retirement. Reflecting on your own temperament and personality can give you insight on how to better manage your transition into retirement.
Who will you be in retirement?
Through interviews with over 100 retirees, Schlossberg identified six different paths that retirees often take to create their retirement lifestyle. For example, continuers usually adapt their existing skills and interests to retirement, often volunteering or working part-time in the same or a similar career field. Research suggests that many retirees aren’t ready to hang up their spurs altogether and instead choose to embark on encore careers. A 2013 CareerBuilder survey found that 52 percent of workers 60 and over planned to work part-time once they retired.4
Adventurers take retirement by the horns by learning new skills and working on their bucket list. They are the retirees who become dedicated RVers or devote themselves to new passions. Many retirees start out as searchers who are looking for their new path. If you find yourself here, you may benefit from career counseling and support to find a new direction. Others become retreaters who withdraw from active life; while some retreaters just need a temporary timeout to figure out their next steps, others can become depressed and confused.
Schlossberg found that retirees “don’t stay on the same pathway forever” and instead shift from one path to another as their needs and interests change.
Don’t be in too much of a rush to find the perfect retirement; what engages you at one point may no longer be practical five or ten years down the line. Delamontagne recommends gradually easing into your new retirement lifestyle before making any drastic changes. If you find yourself itching to move or buy a vacation house, try it out temporarily before committing yourself, and your finances, to a serious life change.
Whatever path you take in your retirement, it’s critical to find a purpose and decide what role you want to take on as a retiree. Whether it’s working part-time, volunteering for a cause, or pursuing a new passion, studies show that retirees who are actively engaged in their lives report greater levels of physical and psychological wellbeing.5
How will your relationships change in retirement?
Many retirees find that key relationships change after retirement. Professional relationships are often the first to suffer. Though many maintain connections with their former colleagues, they will lose the everyday contact with their work friends as retirees move on to a new stage of life.
People who socialized regularly with their professional connections may find it especially difficult to lose the camaraderie of the workplace. Schlossberg recommends that retirees find alternative social outlets through church activities, community groups, and hobbies. Building a substitute community and support network can help diminish the loss of professional relationships.
Your relationship with your spouse or partner will also likely change as you both adapt to a new schedule and retirement lifestyle. Many couples don’t retire at the same time, causing the joint transition to retirement to potentially take longer. One study found that couples often experience conflict when one retires while the other remains working. Researchers pointed to expectations about the division of housework and transition-related stress as common sources of conflict.6
Delamontagne zeroes in on “marital compression” – the sudden increase in togetherness that retired couples may experience – as a key cause of discord. Most married couples are accustomed to being apart for hours every day and enforced closeness can turn minor issues and personality quirks into real problems.
Delamontagne speaks from personal experience. After retiring from a successful career as an entrepreneur and CEO, Delamontagne found that he needed to change the way he interacted with his wife. Without the daily challenge of running a business, he unconsciously became more controlling. “One day, my wife said, ‘Stop telling me what to do! I’m not one of your employees,’” Delamontagne admits; “I didn’t even know I was doing it.”
What can you do to help your relationship adapt? “Open lines of communication,” says Delamontagne, who also recommends delving into the personalities of you and your spouse to better understand your internal motivations and how you relate to each other. Couples who have very different personalities, communication styles, and needs for independence may find more potential points of conflict. In his book, Honey, I’m Home: How to Prevent or Resolve Marriage Conflicts Caused by Retirement, Delamontagne offers suggestions and a discussion guide for opening dialogue between spouses. Couples who struggle to communicate might also benefit from the mediation of a counselor or neutral third party.
What else can you do? “Get a part-time job,” suggests Schlossberg. Whether you’re consulting in your former field, pursuing a hobby, or volunteering for a local cause, independent pursuits and time out of each other’s space can give your relationship some much-needed breathing room. Building that critical support network of friends and activity partners can also help you avoid leaning too much on your spouse for your social needs.
Relationships with children and other family members may also change when you retire. Family is often a source of joy and relaxation to retirees but the expectations of your relatives can also offer unwelcome pressure. While some retirees look forward to spending more time with children and grandchildren, others are equally interested in pursuing travel or a more independent lifestyle. Schlossberg found that many retirees feel pressured by their children to make themselves more available for babysitting duty and other family obligations rather than focusing on their own interests. The burden of these expectations can create a stressful family dynamic.
Whether you’re delighted by the opportunity to take an active role in babysitting or not, The American Grandparents Association recommends setting boundaries early on.7 Think carefully about how much time you want to devote to your family and communicate your expectations in advance; otherwise, you might find your own life taking a back seat to family requests.
Our take on retirement
I hope that you’ve found this article interesting and that you’ve taken away some information to apply to your own life and share with those close to you. Like many important life transitions, retirement can be both exhilarating and stressful.
As financial professionals, our job is to help you prepare for retirement and to give you the financial confidence to pursue your dreams in whatever form they take. However, we also want you to see us as a resource on other aspects of retirement. Though we aren’t psychologists, we have helped many clients negotiate important life transitions and can offer support as you work to pursue your retirement dreams. I’ve identified some resources in this article that may be helpful in your journey and would be happy to direct you to other sources of help.
Whether you’re still preparing for retirement or you are already living in the next phase of life, there’s no single solution that can guarantee a happy, successful retirement. However, our experience teaches us that advanced preparations can help reduce the stress of retiring and help ensure that you’re financially, emotionally, and mentally ready to retire. Finally, we want you to remember that retirement can offer you the freedom to reinvent yourself and pursue new passions. “Retirement never ends, it’s an ever-evolving process,” says Schlossberg. Embrace it and enjoy the life you have created for yourself.
Please feel free to share this information with your friends and family; everyone deserves the benefit of professional recommendations and the confidence of knowing that their future retirement has been planned for. If you would like to review your current retirement plan or need help developing one, please call our office at 419-425-2400. Lastly, if you or someone you know struggles with depression, please seek medical help immediately.
Read more about it
- Honey, I’m Home: How to Prevent or Resolve Marriage Conflicts Caused by Retirement by Robert P. Delamontagne, PhD
- Revitalizing Retirement: Reshaping Your Identity, Relationships, and Purpose by Nancy K. Schlossberg, EdD